Matthew Zapruder’s second collection of poems, The Pajamaist, explores the world with a good-humored inquisitiveness that is engaging. The poems touch on truth, suffering, on damage and reparation, and on poetry itself. They are never static; they are always working toward something. The poems are personal in that in each Zapruder uses memory and experience as gateways to getting at an understanding of what constitutes the self. Yet they are also universal in that the gateways are familiar ones, they are resonant, and are depicted in a voice that invites the reader to enter. The resulting volume is a testament to the liveliness of curiosity that is written in a humorous and syntactically inventive language which keeps the reader actively involved in Zapruder’s quest for truth.
The energy of the poems stems from their persistent curiosity. In Cat Radio, after raising several questions, Zapruder writes, “we are paid for in tiny bundles of time to conjecture or solve these problems.” (66) In the first of the Twenty Poems to Noelle in Section II, he writes, “who will save us?/ It’s good to end something never begun,/ but the question always is.” (23) In the poem Water Street, he writes, “I was less afraid/ for the question/ with wings/ that came/ to perch/ unafraid on my shoulders/ than for myself/ who had at some moment/ to care for them.” (62) In Dream Job, which is a wonderful choice for placement as the first poem in the book, he blatantly states it: “I have so many questions.” (3) He introduces the reader to his humor using a question in this first poem as well, “What happens if overhead in a cloud or laughing at a joke about penguins someone loses the birds?” (4)
Humor is essential to these poems. Zapruder uses it strategically. By humor, I don’t mean an obnoxious guffaw-inducing sort of sitcom humor. I mean a dry, did-he-just-tell-a-joke – yes, damn, that was funny – sort. I mean a smiling sort of humor. Zapruder builds it into the poems to keep them moving, to let the reader in on the sly joke, and to talk to the reader in his own voice. But, what is most remarkable to me about Zapruder’s use of humor in his writing is the great restraint he exercises in its application.
The poem that perhaps best showcases his humor is Canada. The poem introduces the poet as an active character, a participant in the poem, which, thanks to the humor of it, manages to avoid self-absorption:
Just like Canada the Dalai Lama
is now in Canada, and everyone
is fascinated. When they come
to visit me, no one ever leaves me
saying the most touching thing
about him is he’s so human...
Or I could drink a case of you.
Canada, like all of his poems, does not just make one smile; it also has depth. It has a point. It is a reflection on America and what it means to be American after 9/11. “Canada gets along with everyone/ while I hang a dark cloud/ over the schoolyard” (15)
The humor in Zapruder’s poems gives the poetic voice legitimacy. When I read in There Is a Light, “o solemn untamed/ maternal albanian market why/ at this fucked up time of night are you open,” (13) I immediately like this guy on the balcony, which makes me care about why he’s up there. And he rewards my inclination to like him with, “in silence you have been here/ forever since 1993” and “o most magnificent/ pregnant man you give birth to things/ surrounded with chocolate/... you give birth to pine-/scented dishwashing fluids.” The humor in the absurdity of addressing this market in such a flowery “poetic” language suggests that he is making fun of the misuse of the poetic medium. And while the reader is thrown off by the humor of it, distinct lines of the poem surface that are entirely in earnest. Zapruder writes, “you force a man who looks on you to doubt his sleep and lack of sleep.” This is a powerful line. It exposes the poet’s vulnerability, but because Zapruder sneaks it in, it does not hit the reader over the head. There is no pompous profundity here.
The juxtaposition of humor and earnestness is a technique that Zapruder uses throughout the collection and to great effect. In Andale Mono, for example, he writes beautifully about what poetry attempts to accomplish, “By fragments we mean/ pieces of things we thought we had heard,/ and when we say them mean though we cannot/ see you we love you.” He quickly follows this line with, “By light we mean light.” It is as if he catches the reader starting to get lost in the words and wants to snap him back into reality. And in keeping the reader in check, he is keeping himself in check. This is what I mean by his great restraint. He won’t allow himself flights of fancy that are not qualified by humor. The result is a wonderful mix of penetrating thought and lightness that is a pleasure to read.
Like Andale Mono, many of Zapruder’s poems reveal his respect and love of poetry. In Thank You for Being You, he writes about how much he wants to get through to the reader using poetry, but how difficult it is to do successfully. He writes, “I want to communicate with you,/ I’m trying as hard as a human,/ but the white space always stops/ me.” (5) It seems that for him, the act of writing has an intimate, meditative quality to it. Later in the poem, Thank You for Being You, he writes, “you are dark mysterious/ helpful time for time to pull/ in a little, curl up with some reasons,/ and shut out the world.” In Brooklyn With a New Beginning, he sets up the image of poetry as little flames that each represent a thought, “my ideas sometimes glowed a little,” then ends the poem with, “blow/ out the match/ of what I’ve been thinking/ when no one else is around.” (89)
Zapruder writes in a style reminiscent of John Ashbery. His work has the same conversational and experimental feel. In fact, the poem, More Trees, is a direct play on Ashbery’s poem, Some Trees. In it, Zapruder not only responds to Ashbery but makes the subject distinctly his own by injecting it with his characteristic humor. He talks about how learning comes through experience and brings with it an understanding of how little one knows. He writes, “From each I’ve climbed/ a little less perfect/ down a little more clumsy/ in carrying/ what I don’t know.” (90) This is followed by, “Never write about trees,/ agreed my friend and I. Let’s agree on porchlight.” (91) The sarcasm of this statement is more poignant for its placement in the volume after the poem, Brooklyn With a New Beginning, which is full of trees.
This collection includes wonderfully inventive, cleverly constructed, and lovingly written poems. It explores the experience of living in the world with utmost honesty. After reading it, I look forward to Zapruder’s next volume. I can only hope that he continues to experiment and to be, as he says in the poem January, “willing to crawl just a bit farther out onto the sound of ice long after” he hears it cracking.
Michelle Mahoney is a writer who lives in New York City. She was able to ask Matthew Zapruder some questions about his work when he visited a poetry workshop at Fordham University before his reading at the Poets Out Loud Reading Series held at the university’s Lincoln Center campus in December 2006.
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